'Keeping a low profile is not part of our DNA'

Defying their government, South African Jews honor compatriots who fell for Israel

Communal leaders’ ceremony in the Galilee follows Pretoria’s threat to prosecute citizens who served in Israel’s army, amid its petition to ICJ accusing nation of ‘genocide’

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Michael Kransdorff speaks during a ceremony for Israelis from South Africa who died fighting for Israel in Lavi Forest on February 20, 2024. (Courtesy Jewish National Fund South Africa)
Michael Kransdorff speaks during a ceremony for Israelis from South Africa who died fighting for Israel in Lavi Forest on February 20, 2024. (Courtesy Jewish National Fund South Africa)

Following threats by South Africa’s government to prosecute citizens who served in Israel’s army, leaders of South African Jewry organized a ceremony in honor of members of their community who were killed or wounded or made other sacrifices defending the Jewish state.

The delegation on Thursday wrapped up its weeklong solidarity mission in Israel, whose main event was the ceremony Tuesday in the Lavi Forest near Tiberias at the memorial monument for the dozens of South African Jewish casualties who have fallen in Israel’s wars.

The group of delegates from the Jewish National Fund South Africa, the South African Zionist Federation and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael would have visited Israel and held such a ceremony regardless of their government’s diplomatic action against Israel, which coincided in December with threats to prosecute citizens who’d served in the IDF, according to Michael Kransdorf, chairman of South Africa’s Jewish National Fund.

But the visitors found it important to do so and to publicize their actions “particularly in light of our government’s hostile response,” Kransdorf, who is in Israel as part of the mission, told The Times of Israel. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has controversially accused Israel of perpetrating a genocide against Palestinians.

The delegation’s defiant stance is characteristic of the attitude that many South African Jews and their communal leaders have adopted vis-a-vis their government’s reset of diplomatic relations with Israel.

In December, Pretoria brought the disputed genocide charges against Israel to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Israel denies the allegation outright and has pulled out of the proceedings.

South African Jews commemorate their compatriots who died fighting for Israel during a ceremony in their honor on February 20, 2024. (Courtesy Jewish National Fund South Africa)

Far from keeping a low profile on Israel and Zionism — a strategy that many small Jewish communities have adopted following animosity toward Israel by their government or citizenry — the South African Zionist Federation is advertising its Israel mission.

One visitor, columnist and pundit Howard Feldman, has reported about the mission on social media, where he has thousands of followers, and in the mainstream media.

“We have an enormously sophisticated and impressive constitution. And for that reason, I believe that we don’t need to cower. We have every right to be just as vocal as South Africa’s president,” Feldman told The Times of Israel. He added: “I have a voice. We have freedom of expression, and I’m going to represent the community as well as I can and whenever I can.”

The vocal approach is neither tactic nor strategy, but a question of identity, Kransdorff said.

“Keeping a low profile is not part of our DNA as a community,” Kransdorff said. “Zionism has really been the core of our Jewish identity since the founding of the community in the late 1800s. We brought it with us from Lithuania. It was a very important part of our identity, of our political life,” he added.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (3rd-L) and members of the United Ulama Council of South Africa (UUCSA), at the joint press conference in Johannesburg on December 18, 2023. (Roberta Ciuccio/AFP)

Visibility makes sense also because, despite the government’s hostility, there is considerable sympathy for Israel in South Africa, which publicity could help galvanize, Kransdorff said. “Most South Africans are Christian. They feel a strong connection to Israel and several of their church leaders have actually reached out to us, asking how they can help Israel after October 7,” Kransdorff said.

Multiple corruption scandals at the very top of Ramaphosa’s African National Congress ruling party have hurt the credibility of the party, with polls predicting that it may need, for the first time in its history, to form a coalition with other parties to stay in power after this year’s elections.

“We’ve seen case after case of policy capture, in which dollars changed hands to determine government policy. Many South Africans are wondering whether the shift on Israel is just another capture,” Feldman said.

During the trip, the visitors toured communities in the south that were affected by the October 7 Hamas onslaught. Some 3,000 Hamas terrorists murdered about 1,200 people in Israel and abducted 253 others that day. Israel has invaded Gaza with the stated aim of toppling Hamas and freeing 134 hostages believed to be still held by Hamas.

People stand by a banner accusing Israel of genocide and ethnic cleansing outside the International Court of Justice, or World Court, prior to Israel’s response to South Africa’s claim of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza in The Hague, Netherlands, Friday, January 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says some 29,000 people have been killed in the Strip since the start of the war, a figure that cannot be independently verified. According to the Israel Defense Forces, its forces have killed about 12,000 terrorists in Gaza. Israel is also exchanging fire with Hezbollah and its accomplices in Lebanon.

Among those who met the delegation from South Africa was Aviva Siegel, a freed hostage kidnapped on October 7 from Kfar Aza and a native of South Africa. Siegel was released from captivity in Gaza on November 26 as part of a weeklong ceasefire with Hamas. Her husband Keith Siegel, a US citizen, remains captive.

“The horror is overwhelming,” Feldman wrote in the South African Jewish Report on Thursday about the visit, in which the delegation toured the scarred communities of the Gaza envelope area. “But so, too, is the strength, warmth, and resilience of the people.”

South Africa has about 50,000 Jews, according to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, less than half of the country’s estimated Jewish population in the 1970s. Some South African Jews left because of apartheid, whereas others emigrated after its abolition in the 1990s, which led to a massive economic and societal reshuffle.

Aliyah is on the rise, jumping from an average of 210 South African newcomers to Israel in the years 2012-2016 to nearly double that in the following six years. Hundreds more emigrate elsewhere thanks to passports from Lithuania, an EU member state, from where a vast majority of South Africa’s Jews have familial roots.

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